Monday, October 28, 2013

A Short Piece.

Sooooooooo, I suppose this is a long time coming.  For all the references I've made in the past about Akira, I've been fighting writing an actual article about either the comic or the film.  This is partly due to just not knowing where to start; as many readers may have already gathered, I am a tremendous fan of Katsuhiro Otomo, and I have admired and maintained a relationship with his work unlike any else that exists in my life.  His body of work occupies my shelf not only as entertainment, but as inspiration, instruction manual, and proof that hard work and dedication is worth it; as cheesy as that sounds, I guarantee that the top of my bookshelf is more effective than any Hang In There cat poster.
Another reason I haven't spoken more at length about author or (mega)work is because there hasn't been too much more relevant information pertaining to either recently that hasn't been said better elsewhere, and rather than add to the deluge, I thought it best to not add secondhand information on exhibits or works I unfortunately didn't get to experience firsthand.  Excitingly enough, the 25th Anniversary Edition of Akira is being released in North America on Blu-ray on November 12th, so I found my excuse and decided to take it to say a few words in anticipation.

One of the main things that has always impressed me with Otomo was his wonderful sense of design.  In all of his work, especially that found in his first volume of Kaba (1971-1989 Illustration Collection), his skills as a designer, are readily apparent in both his commercial and personal work.  His mastery of such concepts easily transfers to the comics page, where one could practically draw a line tracing the eye-line on the page.  His meticulous draftsmanship takes a backseat to the concepts so simply derived from an intimate knowledge of how visual design works, and it's done in such a manner that the reader never has to think about what combination of principle elements are rushing him ever forward from one page to the next, only that the comic works fundamentally as it should.  In that way, Otomo's comics can be said to epitomize comics themselves.

It is apparent in Otomo's early comics career that he was interested in exploring themes and people beyond the casual manga landscape of the time.  I often compare Katsuhiro Otomo to director Shohei Imamura in that both men seemed very interested in exploring the far more interesting lower rung of society.  Much like Yoshihiro Tatsumi in the late 50s through the early 70s, Otomo's comic work would encapsulate a newer generation of young energy, angry and full of subversion, only this time with an even more cinematic approach.  If Tatsumi and the Gekiga movement was inspired early on by post-war noir and jidaigeki, then Otomo's new brand of manga looked more toward the Japanese New Wave and New Hollywood for inspiration, taking as much stock in the social relevance of Easy Rider as it did, most likely, to the work of Nagisa Oshima.
Inspired further by the European comics movement, Otomo's comics were suffused even further with a fantasy and science fiction influence, spreading all the way from shorter stories such as the more humorous Hair and Electric Bird Land (the latter of which was inspired by the Charlie Parker's Bird Land), to the more serious hard sci-fi pieces, Memories, Farewell To Weapons, and Fireball.  Otomo would then go on to create Domu; one of his most successful works in which he would combine the casual horror and science fiction tropes audiences would find accessible with his previous explorations of urban isolationism within a rapidly growing, and often personally suffocating Japanese society.

Though far from his final piece of work, it could be said that all of the themes previously explored by Otomo came to a head with Akira.  The easily accessible post-apocalyptic science fiction setting of a rapidly modernizing Neo-Tokyo landscape worked perfectly as the backdrop to a very personal (albeit rather epic) vision.  His exploration of modern youth culture in an often oppressive and high-strung society on the brink of collapse showed that things hadn't changed so much since the destruction and rebirth of the book's fictional interpretation of Tokyo, and perhaps it reflected Otomo's views on Japan itself and it's struggle to reinvent itself after it's own destruction and rebirth.  Whatever the case, Akira remains Katsuhiro Otomo's most well-known work to date, and it's something I doubt will change in the foreseeable future.  Through all of the hype, Akira remains a benchmark work in both comics and animation, and perhaps beyond the themes of the work itself, the true benchmark and inspiration to artists in any field should be the love, dedication, and professionalism put into the project by Otomo.  Rather than borrow it's themes or take inspiration from individual scenes or moments, become inspired by what it takes to produce such a work.  Become infatuated with pushing yourself and creating something new; what truly exists in Otomo's work is a focus and understanding that you actually can create.  To me Otomo makes me want to try that much harder.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Keep Me In Mind

Years of being a vinyl record addict have taught me a lot of hard lessons: Always put the white inner-sleeve away facing up so that the record doesn't simply drop to the floor when you get the album out next time. You'll never listen to a record set, even a double album is pushing it. Truly great records look like they were put together by a 1940s yearbook committee.  Maybe most importantly, the price of a record doesn't reflect on its quality.

Which brings me to the artist spotlighted in this article, because i'm about to do you a huge favor. I would conservatively estimate that 65% of the used record bins in the world, from high-end boutiques to Goodwills & garage sales, contain at least one Miriam Makeba album. I'm not really sure why this is. I don't know if the Columbia House record club simply mailed one to every household in America, or if the introduction of fluoride into our municipal water supplies sparked a national craze for world music. For whatever reason, there are a ton of Miriam Makeba albums out in the world, and the chances are that somebody would be willing to sell one to you for $1. Take them up on that offer.
Miriam Makeba was a singer from Johannesburg, South Africa, so beloved that she was nicknamed "Mama Africa." Her renown stems from both her powerful voice and her political activism, particularly as one of the resounding spokespeople against apartheid. She is credited with introducing African music to the worldwide stage when she performed in 1959 for 60 million viewers on the Steve Allen Show.
Armed with beauty, forthrightness, and stunning music, Miriam Makeba became a citizen of the world. Through a strong friendship with Harry Belafonte, she was signed with RCA Records in the United States and released her first solo album, Miriam Makeba, in 1960 featuring Belafonte's backing band. Her 2nd album, The World of Miriam Makeba, released in 1963 built on it's success and charted as high as number 86 on the Billboard Top 200.
Though she would say that she didn't sing political songs, that she simply sang the truth, Makeba was exiled from South Africa, and threatened with arrest should she return. This led Miriam Makeba to testify to the United Nations about the realities of apartheid, the government-codified racial segregation in South Africa, on three separate occassions in 1963, 1975, and 1976.

In 1964, Miriam Makeba was married to another of my favorite musicians, Hugh Masekela, whom she had first met in 1958 while performing in a South African musical of King Kong. Their marriage only lasted 2 years, but their influence on each other is readily apparent in all of their music.
Miriam Makeba led a long and storied career until her death in 2008. She left a legacy of amazing recordings, 28 albums, spanning 48 years. She toured endlessly, fighting through serious illnesses her whole life, passing away from a heart attack following a benefit concert in Italy. She remained an outspoken political advocate of the oppressed and marginalized. She was an unshakeable voice for freedom, love and harmony.
This article was once again written by good friend and World Music aficionado, Andrew Burger.  Aside from being a total dude when I ask for some help writing articles, Andrew also founded The Harmony Society record label and keeps his own blog, Stupid Scientifical, where you can keep up with all of his regular record-buying exploits.  Find him on Twitter, and when you get the chance, stop into 720 Music, which he co-owns and operates in Pittsburgh, Pa.  Also, if you haven't read it already, check out his excellent article on Marcos Valle from (what feels like) way back in July.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A One And A Two.

Even though the summer is over (and it is, despite the unseasonably warm weather), I was browsing through my movies recently, and I was struck with the urge to finally shove off the lingering season by watching Edward Yang's sumptuous, slice-of-life/coming-of-age/delinquent youth epic masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day (牯嶺街少年殺人事件 Gǔ lǐng jiē shàonián shārén shìjiàn), whose title was derived from the Elvis Presley song, Are You Lonesome Tonight?
I was first introduced to Yang via his most widely available (thanks to the Criterion Collection), and final film, Yi Yi.  Watching either film is a slight undertaking due to their length (Yi Yi is 3 hours long, and A Brighter Summer Day closes out at around 4), but the way in which Yang portrays his linear events in his pictures have an almost episodic feel to them, allowing the viewer's attention to continually refocus as the momentum keeps at a steady rhythm.  It's not all jump-cuts or high-kinetic pacing though; Yang lets the seemingly stable and everyday moments in his films speak for themselves, allowing them the attention they deserve, and in the process, keeps us fascinated by such seemingly mundane activities.  There is a natural tension to real life, and Yang recognizes that an afternoon in the principal's office can be as tense as a run from the police, and the real life alienation that the two feel are often times very similar.

In fact, it was those themes of alienation explored by Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni that helped Yang find his place as a filmmaker himself.  Although he always had a fascination with film, Yang instead studied electronic engineering at National Chiao Tung University (sounding familiar to anyone else?) before giving it a try at UNC Film School after getting his Masters degree in electrical and computer engineering.  Yang found the curriculum and teaching at UNC too commercial-driven and limiting, and after leaving USC was accepted to the Harvard Graduate School Of Design, where he did not attend.  If all this is sounding a bit too convoluted, hang in there: While Yang was working on microcomputers in Seattle, Washington, he was struck by the film Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, by Werner Herzog, and later discovered the work of Antonioni before returning to Taiwan to pursue a career in film and TV.

I admittedly have not seen all of Yang's work (I'm certainly working on it, though), but the films of his I have seen are some of my absolute favorites.  Unfortunately, the director passed away from colon cancer in 2007, so we'll never get to see what heights his later films could have reached (2000's Yi Yi is considered his best film, by many).  He was reportedly working on a full length animated film with Jackie Chan (the fucking best) titled The Wind, and if you're like me, you can throw that film on the pile with Jodorowsky's Dune and anything else Satoshi Kon was going to do as the greatest sounding movies we'll never get to see (I know there is a Dune documentary coming out soon, and maybe The Dream Machine will get finished, but still...).  For all his hiccups towards his film career though, Edward Yang was able to create some of the most memorable moments I've had watching films, and in a way, with such a short career, much like Satoshi Kon, the audience was always on the upswing of his work; his films were only going to get better, and we can only imagine, in selfish elation, what would have come next.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Taiwanese New Wave, which Yang shared with fellow directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien (if you haven't watched Daughter Of The Nile, please do), Wu Nien-jen, and Tsai Ming-liang (among others).  It's interesting to note that not all directors in the Taiwanese New Wave were Taiwanese, and I think that says some interesting things not only about it's film industry, but about Taiwan itself.